Posts in Asia
Two Questions, 1 & 1/2 Answers

Two questions, at least, are on investors’ mind at the moment. Is the synchronised global upturning turning into a synchronised slowdown? Will the dollar rally be sustained, and if so, will it spark further stress in emerging markets and in the global economy? You would be hard-pressed to argue that the global economy is slowing dramatically, at least based on the most recent headline data. My estimates suggest that global GDP growth was unchanged at 2.9% year-over-year in Q1, thanks mainly to a slight 0.3 percentage point rise in U.S. growth to 2.9%. That said, this number includes the 6.8% headline in China, which no one believes, and we still don’t know what happened in Japan. Finally, this number masks the fact that momentum in Europe slowed across the board. Growth in the euro area is still solid, but it slowed sharply in Q1. And the first indications for Q2 do not promise much in the way of a rebound. After growth of nearly 3% last year, all evidence so far points to somewhat slower growth of 2% in 2018. The picture is even grimmer in the U.K. where growth slid to a five-year low of 1.2% in Q1. Looking beyond the GDP numbers, leading indicators are discouraging, but not yet in panic territory.

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Let's get the story right

I have trampled around in the same weeds recently, so I will keep it short this week. Equities are doing what they’re supposed to, trying to complete a V-shaped recovery from the swoon earlier this month. Last week was a corker, even for the portfolio, which benefitted from solid earnings reports. Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal had me one-on-one on Monday, where I duly warned that the S&P 500 remained overvalued relative to other asset classes. Even Gartman couldn’t have done it better. On this occasion, though, I am happy to double down. A V-shaped rebound to a new bull run looks like wishful thinking to me. Equities are the least of macro investors’ problems, though. The puzzle of the day remains the link between rising U.S. yields, a firming cyclical outlook and a falling dollar. In my last post, I asked the question of whether foreign savings would come to aid of a U.S. economy at full employment—with a record low savings rate—about to be jolted by fiscal stimulus. Open macroeconomics suggest that such an economy should open up a large external deficit, and Japan and Europe have the savings to make it happen. Alternatively I suggested that perhaps the rest of the world doesn’t fancy financing excess spending and investment in the U.S.

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Is it time to worry about low oil prices again?

Markets raised a lot of interesting questions last week, and most of them had nothing to do with the French presidential elections. The main talking points were the stumble in oil prices—and other industrial commodities—and the growing anxiety that the stop-go cycle in China is edging towards the former rather than the latter. The main question everyone is asking when the market breaks key levels is whether it is the beginning of a more prolonged move. I am no expert, but if pressed I think oil and commodities will snap back. The chart below shows trailing flows of the DBC commodity ETF, which have been depressed recently. This doesn't preclude a further rout, but it suggests that investors' positioning and sentiment don't favour it. This story is corroborated by CFTC data, which shows that spec positioning in oil have been reduced significantly. This doesn't look like a market which is being caught out complacently long as was the case last time oil was routed. 

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Let's stick to what we know

Investors have found it difficult to resist the temptation to become armchair generals in response to the recent flurry of geopolitical volatility. I have some sympathy for that. Political experts told us that Mr. Trump would mark the beginning of a new U.S. isolationism, and even speculated about the emergence of a new Monroe doctrine. The president's "America First" discourse, the statement that NATO is obsolete, and the rapprochement to Russia were all pivots watched ominously by other world leaders, especially in continental Europe.

This story, however, increasingly feels like ancient history.

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